There is almost nothing as controversial as dairy in the Paleo world. This is a strange grey zone, because human breast milk is pretty much the most perfect food there is when it comes to nourishment and nutrients. Babies who are breastfed longer have higher IQs, among many other beneficial areas of achievement. And our Paleolithic ancestors certainly didn’t have baby formula – they had to breastfeed their babies.
Mother’s milk is loaded with good bacteria, essential fatty acids, proteins, saturated fats, and sugar (it is a highly insulinogenic food). However, most dairy consumed by the general populace is not this high quality milk. That is important to remember. Dairy also helps to promote growth, and this is where many will argue that we should not be consuming a growth-promoting food after infancy. But herein lies the problem.
Should we consume dairy to possibly bring on muscle growth (athletes tend to be big fans of dairy) or should we stop consuming it, because we are only “supposed” to consume dairy during infancy? It is the topic of dairy being consumed after infancy, where the arguments start. No one is arguing that children shouldn’t be breast-fed.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of dairy consumption is that you can get all the nutrients you need – bioavailable forms of protein, carbohydrates and fats. In one sense – it is nature’s perfect food. Yet, it doesn’t make sense for those who get acne from simply consuming dairy. And what about those who are lactose intolerant? As you can see, dairy is a complex and confusing topic for many. It is ultimately something you will need to try for yourself, to see if you do well with it, or whether you do better without it. That being said, just because some people do well with it, that doesn’t necessarily mean dairy is Paleo.
There are pros and cons of dairy consumption, with some sources as authoritative as Dr. Loren Cordain (founder of the Paleo concept) stating that dairy is definitely not Paleo. Dr. Cordain brings up many good points, and it’s hard not to listen to the founder of the Paleo idea. And yet, others push back very hard that it is a context issue, in that dairy can be good for some – especially those with intact gut health and who are already metabolically healthy. This seems like a more middle-of-the road approach.
But until now, this has been all speculation. The best way of determining whether you should consume a food group is to take an unbiased look at the evidence and make the best decision for you. Dairy is also a case where it is best to leave it out of your diet for a time period, reintroduce it, and see how you specifically react. There is no blanket answer for everyone. But right now, lets dig in to the evidence of whether dairy is “Paleo” or not!
The issue of lactose intolerance is perhaps one of the biggest issues with dairy consumption. In fact, large numbers of people are simply not adapted to lactose once they stop consuming their mother’s breast milk. This is scientifically usually due to genes being downregulated, and is different than one of the other issues with dairy, which is casein intolerance.
One way to test if you are lactose or casein intolerant is to buy an isolated casein powder at a health food store. Try this powder and see if you react adversely to it. If you do – bingo – you likely have casein intolerance (sorry about all that protein powder you can no longer use). If you seem to do okay with the powder, and yet still struggle with dairy, you likely have lactose intolerance. This is a key distinction that many never make.
Casein intolerance is entirely different than lactose intolerance, and since casein is a protein, this explains while you will see many bodybuilders supplementing with it (especially right before bed). Many who think they are lactose intolerant, are actually casein intolerant. There is also a very high proline content in casein, and this means that if you are sensitive or completely intolerant to gluten, that dairy is likely going to be a problem for you as well. Gliadin (one of the damaging components of gluten) is very similar in structure to some parts of dairy.
There is also the interesting development that some different parts of the world seem to be a little bit better adapted to dairy consumption, compared to others. This usually has something to do with how long their ancestors have been consuming dairy and helps to explain the difference in those who are lactose intolerant and those who are not.
Did Our Ancestors Consume It?
This may be where the most controversy lies, as our Paleolithic ancestors likely only consumed human breast milk during infancy. So for those who strictly follow a Paleo diet, milk is simply out of the question. However, herding cultures specifically seem to have improved adaptation to dairy, because they have been dealing with it for longer than most other cultures as a food group.
Dr. Cordain makes some strong arguments that dairy was not consumed until the dawn of agriculture, around 10,000 years ago. The reason for this is quite simple – we had no real way of taming wild animals – and definitely not milking them. While this may be an overly simplistic argument, he is still largely correct. And if you agree with the rest of the premise of the Paleo diet, than it makes sense that you would not want to consume dairy, as well.
Benefits of Fermented, Grass-fed Dairy
With all logic showing that our ancestors didn’t likely consume dairy, we seem to have arrived at our answer as to whether dairy is Paleo or not. However, many still like the taste of dairy, and they may not have casein or lactose intolerance. So what is the best way for those people to consume dairy? It is not in highly-processed cheese found on a cheap cheeseburger at a drive-thru. It is instead fermented, grass-fed dairy.
Fermented, grass-fed dairy is highly beneficial for many, because it contains many fat-soluble vitamins, and specifically, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). And if you’re worried about your microbiome, this type of dairy will give you a nice boost of “good” gut bacteria. Interestingly, this type of dairy is also more closely linked to our ancestors, who seemed to recognize the benefits it had to offer the human body.
So, one could more easily make an argument to state that this specific type of dairy is Paleo – though that would again involve a lengthy debate. The bottom line is, in the right context, this type of dairy can be beneficial, but you still need to consume a healthy diet, of which the other tenets of a good Paleo diet will still apply. Consume lots of organic veggies, high-quality sources of protein, and healthy fats. And leave out those terrible processed foods and drinks – which much of America still subsists on!
Another option here is grass-fed and pastured butter. Many people avoid milk, cheese and yogurt – but indulge freely in this type of butter. Since it is largely fat, this makes a lot of sense. The lactose has also been mostly eliminated, so those who are lactose intolerant seem to do okay with it, as well. Ghee, or clarified butter, is ideal here, which purifies this type of butter to almost 100% fat – improving things even more.
One must remember, though, that if you are attempting a Paleo diet for autoimmune reasons, you must avoid dairy 100% (along with some other foods, as well). This is just how it works. While many in the mainstream world will not change their diet for autoimmune conditions, this is foolish, and diet can make a huge difference in symptoms, or even eliminate them completely.
As you can see, the issue of dairy is very complex, and some may benefit from consuming it – even if it is not Paleo in the strictest sense. Many who suffer from different food intolerances, allergies and diseases, however, must avoid dairy entirely. And indeed, there is a Paleolithic basis for these reasons.
But that doesn’t mean you cannot benefit from dairy consumption, especially the right kind of dairy. Choose wisely, and remember that dairy is highly individualistic, and you must experiment on yourself to find out if dairy is truly Paleo for you!
Another great read: Is It Paleo If It’s Not Organic?